Crews battling a raging Arizona wildfire that has claimed at least 200 structures and the lives of 19 elite firefighters were gaining ground on containing the fire Wednesday as an investigation was launched into how the Granite Mountain Hotshots were trapped in the deadly blaze.
As many as 600 firefighters have worked to stop the spread of the fire, which was reported to be 45 percent contained on Wednesday evening, according to the Arizona State Forestry Division. On Tuesday evening the fire was only 8 percent contained.
Driven by gusty winds and high temperatures, the blaze has scorched more than 8,400 acres of scrubland, blackening an area outside the towns of Yarnell and Peeple’s Valley, northwest of Phoenix. Investigators will look into the weather conditions, fire department’s radio logs and records, and will likely speak with the surviving member of the team killed in the fire, identified as Brendan McDonough.
A statement from the Arizona State Forestry Division said they expected to release updates from the investigation later in the week.
The ultimate goal of the nine-member team of investigators is to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again. They will be looking to see whether the fire crew, some of whom deployed last-ditch fire shelters, had established an escape route and taken other precautions.
“We are confident that the investigative team will find lessons to be learned from this tragedy,” Arizona State Forester Scott Hunt said in a statement. “We have a responsibility to those lost and their loved ones, as well as to current and future wildland firefighters, to understand what happened as completely as possible.”
The members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots underwent extensive training for their high-stakes job on the front lines of dangerous wildfires. The crew regularly faced “extreme environmental conditions,” according to the group’s website, and conditioned themselves to cope with long hours fighting fires.
“We believe in rigorous physical and mental training, which allows us to perform at the optimum level in any location and under any circumstances,” according to the group’s website.
Many in the crew of 19 men, who ranged in age between 21 and 43, left behind wives and young children. Thousands poured into the Prescott High School football stadium earlier this week for a vigil that was filled to overflowing, according to local newspaper the Prescott Daily Courier.
“To friends and families of the 19 heroes, your loved ones laid down their lives in the ultimate expression of love to you,” Prescott resident John Dickerson said at the memorial service, according to the Daily Courier. “And tonight, you are loved by your community.”
Jim Whittington, spokesman for the Southwest Incident Command Team, said Wednesday he expected containment to go up when numbers were reported at shift's end. He acknowledged that the deaths of the hotshot crew members made fighting this fire "different."
Michael Nelson / EPA
The surviving member of the Granite Hill Hotshot crew, Brendan McDonough, hugs a family member of the victims during a candle light vigil and remembrance for the 19 firefighter victims of the Yarnell Hill Fire at Prescott High School in Prescott, Arizona.
"Firefighters are a brotherhood. Whether you're climbing up 12 flights of stairs or a hill, there's a shared experience," he said. "This affects everybody and makes this fire very different. ... Everybody wants to put this thing to bed and get rid of it."
In a solemn tribute to the fallen firefighters, a procession of vehicles used by the Granite Mountain Hotshots made the three-hour journey back to Prescott on Wednesday — with fire crews along the route pausing operations to remember the victims.
The tiny town of Yarnell, with a population of fewer than 700 people, lost at least 129 residences and other buildings in the lightning-caused fire on Sunday, Dwight D’Evelyn, spokesman for the Yavapai County Sheriff’s office said at a community meeting on Wednesday, the Arizona Republic reported. The town has been evacuated since Sunday’s tragedy.
NBC News' Jeff Black contributed to this report.
First published July 3 2013, 4:04 PM